Review: 'The Last Black Man
in San Francisco'

The city is under siege as a homeless man attempts to take back a castle
LIFE AS A HOUSE: Jimmie Fails falls in love with a home he cannot have in 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco.'

San Francisco is nothing but a series of steep hills that people cling to until the gravity gets them. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a remarkable film in the way it evokes that downward pull.

It's all about a dispossessed young man and the best friend who lives with him and studies him. Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails) was homeless for half his life. He's obsessed with a Victorian house on the edge of the Fillmore; he surreptitiously tends to it, lovingly painting the windowsills even as the current tenants pelt him with fruit from Whole Foods.

He's crashing in Hunters Point, sharing a small house on a hill underneath the Sunnydale projects with his close friend, Mont (Jonathan Majors), and Mont's blind grandad (Danny Glover). The well-dressed Mont is always watching, always sketching, and always on the verge of finishing a play. Soon Mont has a subject: Jimmy feels this wooden castle of a Victorian is a family treasure. After a dispute leaves it vacant, the young man reclaims the place, if only as a squatter.

Mont and Jimmy's relationship is a little tiptoe—there's room for speculation about their apparent lack of interest in women. (Later in life, a person might well be more fascinated with real estate than sex, but these are young men we're talking about.) The sexlessness is likely a deliberate contrast of these characters to the hyper-macho world around him. That world is represented by a Greek chorus of five street loungers, raucously bitter mockers and ruffians. (One, stumbling over a lost hair weave, rolling in the wind across the street: "That's one nasty-ass tumbleweed there.") Note how compassionately the film observes the way people who are underneath the underdog ceaselessly goad each other.

Gentrification is coming even for this remote stretch of San Francisco. But director Joe Talbot is too thoughtful to satirize the new arrivals in the way Mike Leigh went after the savage, infantile yuppies the Boothe-Brains in Life Is Sweet (1991). Talbot, part of a noted SF family of journalists and actors, keeps his eye is on what's left of life there—he charts what hasn't been bulldozed out, in one slow, dreamy street scene after another, haloed with pearly or coppery fog.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco evokes SF sorrow even up to the point of symbolism. When Jamie says, "Our sweat is in these shingles," we see the rain dripping from them. Yet it has its funny side, as in a passage with Mike Epps as Bobby, a vagabond parsing the meaning of the word "alone." Bobby takes harsh pleasure in his independence, and the car he sleeps in is decorated with Christmas lights. Nice also to see a longtime fighter against the forces bleaching San Francisco as if it were a doomed coral reef: Jello Biafra has a small role as an idiotic, Segway-mounted tour guide.

Certain theatrical contrivances didn't quite metamorphose into cinema. Exposed to the harsh light of a projector, material made for a play reveals its holes. The third act goes off track during a small play staged in a Victorian attic. The exposure of a key character's fantasies in a public truth-telling session comes off as bald staginess. Worse is the scene where James begs for a mortgage with no more collateral than his deep feelings for the house.

And yet The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a beautifully made study of disillusionment and urban dispossession. Fails superbly underplays this man in thrall to a vision. Adam Newport-Barra's photography is up with the best visions of the city ever screened: a hill flattened by a long lens to look as steep as a Diebenkorn cityscape, the zeroing-in on a window in a Tenderloin SRO hotel where Jimmy's scalding father lives; at last, the wrenching finale, a scene in an open boat on oily purple water. Jimmy's conversation with a couple of newby white girls on the Muni is a line that will be quoted as long as there's a San Francisco: What he says is as wise as the saying by whomever it was—probably not Mark Twain—about the coldest winter they ever spent.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
R; 120 Mins.
Ciné Arts Palo Alto Square
3Below Theaters & Lounge

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